MUSICAL LIVES, 2003
Celebrating Senior Musicians of Santa Cruz County, CA

 

 

Don McCaslin

 


Photo by Janet Herman

Don McCaslin, 2003

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don McCaslin
Jazz Pianist and Vibes Player

Don McCaslin was born in Tacoma, Washington, in December of 1926, and moved to the San Jose area during his first year of life. The city was “one big orchard” at the time and a good place to grow up. Don frequently visited Santa Cruz to see his paternal grandparents. His grandmother sang church music, accompanying herself on the piano. Don’s father, while not a full time professional musician, was a fine singer and trombonist.


Don McCaslin (center, holding trumpet) in college

Don took a few piano lessons as a child, but it was boogie woogie music that really inspired him. He played in the high school jazz band and then, while attending San Jose State, formed a band patterned after the “danceable bee bop” of the George Shearing Quintet: piano, guitar, vibraphone, bass and drums. Don played weekends in San Jose clubs and worked one summer at the High Hat across from the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. In the 1950s he played with the Carl Bruhn big band at the Coconut Grove. He also spent a summer playing at a jazz hang out in Capitola, the Coffee Cabaret (in the space now occupied by Mr. Toots). In the 1960s he played regularly at the Opus de Jazz (now Beach Street Café).


Cooper House, 1970s. Mural of Warmth in background by James McFarlin.

Following his graduation from college, Don worked for fifteen years as a high school English teacher in Fremont. Then in 1970 he quit his teaching job and moved to Santa Cruz, making music his main pursuit. In 1972 he began playing vibes daily at the Cooper House sidewalk café, leading the band Warmth in a legendary gig that lasted until the Cooper House was demolished (following the 1989 earthquake). Warmth played upbeat, Latin-tinged jazz that became, as one reviewer wrote, “the heartbeat of downtown Santa Cruz.”


At the Capitola Wharf

At night, Don continued to play piano in combos throughout the county—the Riverside Inn, Bayview Hotel, and 2525 Main Street were some of his regular jobs throughout the 1970s and 80s, and he also performed at Peachwoods and elsewhere with the Motown Express. For the last seven years, he has played weekly with the Amazing Jazz Geezers at Severinos. During summer he can be found leading Warmth every Sunday afternoon on the deck of the Capitola Wharf House restaurant.

Don says one of the highlights of his musical life was seeing his own son, the saxophonist Donny McCaslin, perform at Lincoln Center with Denilo Perez.